Middle of the Night by Gwendolyn Alley

Gwendolyn Alley has been doing something extraordinary. In the month of August, she has been setting her alarm clock for 3:15 AM each night before bed. When it goes off, she writes a poem as part the “3:15 Experiment” in poetry and consciousness. Her newest collection, Middle of the Night, contains poems written in this way over the past nine years.

Much has happened in this time, and the collection reads as somnambulistic reportage of pregnancy, motherhood, and the death of both her closest poet-friend and her mother. In taking up Emily Dickinson’s charge to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Alley also tells it sleepily, through her dreamlike “315 mind.” Poems are arranged chronologically, titled by date, as though we were reading a diary of the poet’s late-night self.

The poems in this collection celebrate a mother’s adoration of, and fascination with, her son — before and after his birth — as in this excerpt from “Tuesday, August 2, 2005”:

I had never seen
a child in child’s pose
before I had a
child of my own
I never saw how completely
they can pull themselves
up into themselves all tucked in
never saw how tortoise like
they retract their arms their legs
the soles of the feet
slipping in under the torso
only a few toes poking out

Continue reading…

Poetry Sidelined in Ventura

I was disheartened this morning to hear from Gwendolyn Alley that the Spoken Word Salon poetry series at Zoey’s I attended and enjoyed so much last week has been cancelled. As I mentioned on the Ojai Post, Gwendolyn has been hosting this series as part of her English 1A composition class. Apparently a student complained about the series, and the administration decided that it should no longer be part of the class (which means Gwendolyn will be teaching in a classroom setting on the third Thursday of each month and therefore unable to continue hosting the series). These are the facts of the situation as best as I have understood them.

My response is first, of course, that I am sorry for Gwendolyn that something she has put her heart into for the past five years has come to such an abrupt halt. Beyond this, however, I am surprised that on the basis of a student complaint this teaching format has been so unceremoniously scrapped. Ironically, after the reading last week I told Gwendolyn how deeply impressed I was that her Spoken Word Salon seemed to be a such creative way to benefit both students and the community.

And so, I am surprised and a bit disheartened to hear that the administration has decided that exposing students to poetry in this way should not be part of the English 1A curriculum. It seems to me that poetry is often regarded as a either a soft or inaccessible art, suitable for either mushy sing-song verse or Pulitzer Prize winners, but certainly not for ordinary undergraduates still learning to string words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages together into a cohesive line of thought. As far as I’m concerned, the highest aim of learning to write well is actually poetry, and I would have been honored and amazed to be in a class like this one as an undergraduate.

I am sad, too, to hear that poetry has been sidelined in this way as inappropriate to the supposedly more important objectives of prose. Personally, I think the nature of poetry as a sometimes vulnerable, moving and intimate form often threatens people whereas prose does not. And so poetry, if we let it, can be easily dismissed on other grounds as inappropriate. It is, in fact, appropriate to our very humanity.

Most of all, I am sad to know that Gwendolyn has gone out of her way to give a meaningful experience to these students, to foster in them not only syntax but creative expression, and that this seems to have been highly undervalued. I can not help but think of Robin Williams’ character in the by turns maudlin and poignant Dead Poet’s Society, who likewise set out to teach students about something more than just words on a page and was likewise discouraged by academia. I don’t know if her students will stand up on their desks to salute Ms. Alley’s efforts. But I, for one, applaud her and have been inspired by her example.